Dave Hill: How can we get estate regeneration right?

Dave Hill: How can we get estate regeneration right?

Estate regeneration, especially of council rented homes, has produced a string of high-profile conflicts between, on the one hand, borough leaders, social landlords and developers and, on the other, housing activists and their political and media sympathisers. Each struggle has been emblematic of larger ones about the future of the capital, with its simultaneous needs to improve and increase its housing stock and to provide stability in a city in a constant state of churn. Strong emotions are stirred about power, progress and local attachment. What are the lessons of these stories for achieving the best regeneration outcomes?

One principle should be paramount. It is never, ever to push people around. Borough planners and politicians, mindful of the cost of repairing dwellings that are beyond proper repair and the queues for social and other “affordable” homes stretching round the Town Hall block, might be forgiven for surveying leaky, low density products of post-war municipalism done on the cheap and concluding that they are, quite literally, a waste of space. Regeneration is often informed by a desire to facilitate “mix” and “connectivity”, which are fine, if sometimes over played. But estates critised as warehousing poverty can be, for those who inhabit them, havens of comfort and security within vital networks of friendship and support.

This is the bedrock stuff of social cohesion, an asset to be prized. When regeneration feels imposed, it’s not surprising there is resistance. Better to accept from the off that any proposal to tear down an estate is sure to be seen by some only as a threat. At the same time, the law of averages alone insists that others will perceive it as an opportunity to solve some of the biggest problems in their lives. These are the silent majority that louder anti-regeneration groups, not all of them rooted in the communities they claim to represent, omit from the “social cleansing” narratives they provide for liberal journalists.

Imagine someone from the council rang your bell and said, “We’re going to knock your house down, but don’t worry we’ll build a better one for you nearby.” If you like where you live you might provide a dusty answer. Older people, understandably, are often the least receptive. But if you’re sick of damp and vermin and thin walls through which your neighbours can be heard and your 28-year-old-son is sleeping on your sofa because there is no bedroom for him, you might prick up your ears.

A spectrum of sentiment is only to be expected and all of it must be respected. Securing a critical mass of resident support requires transparency and candour, including about finance and land. Formal consultations have too often been easy to dismiss as the covert rubber-stamping of decisions that have already been made. Might there be a central role for proper focus groups to gauge opinion more thoroughly? Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s new requirement that residents must approve regeneration schemes through a ballot if he is to help fund them, having previously opposed that approach, was seen by some as a capitulation to the anti-regeneration left. Yet the earliest ballots have produced resounding “yes” votes, including for schemes proposed by Labour-run Ealing Council and two housing associations.

The biggest problem with ballots is that they risk leaving those enduring the worst housing conditions as a defeated, stuck minority. But the need of landlords to win them has concentrated minds on serious engagement with tenants and with leaseholders too. The latter, as homeowners, often feel robbed by the replacement homes they are offered. There is a fairness case for more generous compensation – as there is for more public investment in affordable homes – but also for explaining that, sadly, a home owned on an estate is quite likely to have a lower market value than an equivalent street property nearby.

Regeneration in its widest sense can improve lives in lots of ways, be that through employment support as provided by Notting Hill Genesis to people on the Aylesbury estate in Southwark, or by involving residents in the design of their new homes, as happened with the celebrated Packington estate in Islington. These are virtuous endeavours that build trust. This helps developers, councils and landlords, who strive to retain it. Political leaders should be active custodians of regeneration schemes, engaging closely with the people they are elected to serve and bringing them on board.

Good regeneration is the product of painstaking negotiation and all interested parties finding a shared, progressive path. All involved must eschew a bulldozer mentality that would crush the very people regeneration most effects. It might not the easiest way, but it will be the happiest one in the end.

This article was originally published in the booklet Estate Regeneration – Creating a New Generation of Neighbourhoods, published by international law firm Trowers and Hamlins.

Categories: Comment

3 Comments

  1. Jacob Secker says:

    Again, we must ask how is all this estate regeneration going to be funded?

    Councils are talking as if ending the borrowing cap means unlimited free money to build as much council housing as they like. With flats costing about £190,000 each to build in London, even on land the council owns, this is delusional. There is no way that councils can repay the debts on these loans over a 30 year period from low social rents which are often not much over £100 a week, even when you add in service charges. Don’t forget many new homes will be lost on right to buy, reducing total rent revenue. Also annual rent payments are not just there to pay back debt, over half of rent payments are needed for repairs, maintenance, management etc.

    Estate demolishers have their eyes on ten thousands of London homes. Re-providing them all at social rent would cost billions in grant that could have been used to provide net new homes and end the scandal of families in temporary accommodation.

    The other alternative of providing replacement homes at ‘London Affordable Rent’ which is much higher than social rent will just mean families hitting the benefit cap or not being able to afford rent from wages.

    The endless propaganda for estate demolition just gives Local Authorities the excuse to neglect existing estates and leave residents living in poor conditions, responding to complaints by telling people that their homes need to be knocked down.

  2. Jacob Secker says:

    London Affordable Rent (LAR) is not social rent plus a tenner. It’s getting on for £50 more a week.

    Your link states that ‘The weekly level for a three-bedroom flat [on London Affordable Rent] in 2018/19 is £167.67. Unlike other social rents London Affordable Rents have been going up by CPI+1%.

    The equivalent social rent is £120.14 for a 3 bed:
    https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/live-tables-on-rents-lettings-and-tenancies
    (See table 707).
    It is true that the rent for a first let (i.e. newly built or acquired) Local Authority social rented property is somewhat more-£134.70 but this is still more than £30 below London Affordable Rent not £10.
    See:
    https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/532123/response/1276416/attach/html/2/Response%20all%20information%20to%20be%20supplied.pdf.html
    (Download attachment for table).
    The problem is that once you add in service charges and keep hiking LAR by CPI+1%, then households will start hitting the benefit cap, which is much less likely to increase barring a change in government.

    The GLA keeps ignoring this issue and even implying that campaigners like me are making things up when their own statistics show that it is they that are making misleading statements. It is things like this which leads to the bitterness of the fight around demolition issues in London.

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